Barry, Kathleen M. 1970–

views updated

Barry, Kathleen M. 1970–


Born March 25, 1970; married. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (magna cum laude), 1992; New York University, Ph.D., 2002.


Home—London, England. E-mail—[email protected]


Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York, NY, coordinator of special projects and publications; taught American history at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, England, and New York University, New York, NY.


Mellon Research Fellow in American History, University of Cambridge; Jesus College fellow.


Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 2007.


Kathleen M. Barry is an expert on the history of flight attendants. She has presented her research on this subject at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, the North American Labor History Conference, the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women, the University of London, and Oxford and Cambridge Universities. She served as an advisor to the 2004 film Fly with Me: The History of the Flight Attendant, which was first broadcast in England, then in Canada and the United States on the History Channel. Before moving to London when she was awarded a Cambridge fellowship, Barry was on the staff of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York City. As coordinator of special projects and publications, she was involved in the design, editing, and production of publications for teachers, students, and the public. She also worked on the development of the New York State affiliate of the National Council for History Education and the Institute's summer internship program for undergraduates.

Barry's extensive research on flight attendants led to her first book, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants. She actually begins with a prehistory that describes rail travel and compares how air travel competed with and developed from it. She notes that the people who rode the rails on Pullman Company trains were mostly male and white. They were served by black porters whose attendance gave the travelers a feeling of superiority. The women travelers were served by maids. The airlines, on the other hand, wanted air travel to be entirely "white" and free from any kind of tipping. They first hired young white male stewards, but in 1930, Ellen Church, a nurse and trained pilot (who had no hope of being hired as such) approached United Airlines' predecessor Boeing Air Transport with the proposal that they hire female nurses. The idea of using women took hold. The fact that they were trained nurses wasn't emphasized, however, since that might indicate that there could be danger. The plane would seem safer with women hostesses, as they were then called, since if they weren't afraid to fly, then neither should a passenger be afraid.

As the industry expanded, the nursing requirement was dropped, but other requirements took its place. Attendants were required to wear full makeup, cut their hair in a similar fashion, and quit when they reached the age of thirty-two or were married, whichever came first. Many paid for their own training without any promise of a job, and their pay structure, although higher than most women were being paid at the time, did not compare to that of other airline employees who worked in the air or on the ground.

Because of the nature of their job, attendants found it difficult to organize, but they finally began to after World War II. They achieved real change during the 1960s, after the first laws preventing sex discrimination were passed. Tired of being seen as objects of amusement and worse by the male passengers, as well as airline slogans like "Fly me" and "We really move our tails for you," they ultimately succeeded in discarding the miniskirts and other provocative clothing they had been required to wear in favor of professional-looking uniforms, and subsequently gained respect for the knowledge and expertise that truly made them valuable. Black women were hired and age and marriage restrictions were dropped. By this time, however, air travel had become a mass market industry, and most of the glamour of the attendants' job had disappeared.

An Economist reviewer wrote: "The book leaves a sense of nostalgia in its wake. Female cabin crew may have higher formal status and are less likely to have their bottoms pinched (by customers or colleagues). But their job has become both harder and drearier."

In her review for the Blogcritics Web site, Natalie Bennett concluded: "Barry does a good job of charting that final change, as she does overall in describing the massive changes an industry still less than a century old has undergone."



Economist, May 5, 2007, review of Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, p. 105.

Library Journal, June 1, 2007, Elizabeth L. Winter, review of Femininity in Flight, p. 136.

London Review of Books, February 8, 2007, Andrew O'Hagan, review of Femininity in Flight, p. 20.

New Yorker, April 16, 2007, review of Femininity in Flight, p. 153.

Times Higher Education Supplement, March 23, 2007, Rosie Cox, review of Femininity in Flight, p. 25.

Times Literary Supplement, April 27, 2007, Roz Kaveney, review of Femininity in Flight, p. 31.

Women's Studies, September, 2007, Elizabeth Callagham, review of Femininity in Flight, p. 460.


Blogcritics, (July 28, 2007), Natalie Bennett, review of Femininity in Flight.

Femininity in Flight Web site, (March 14, 2008).

Fresh Fiction, (March 14, 2008), review of Femininity in Flight.

About this article

Barry, Kathleen M. 1970–

Updated About content Print Article